Revolutions per Minute

Photograph: Galen McDonald

WHEN I WAS a young activist, the ’60s were not yet far enough away, and people still talked about “after the revolution.” They still believed in some sort of decisive event that would make everything different — an impossible event, because even a change in administration cannot bring a universal change of heart, and the process of changing imagination and culture is plodding, incremental, frustrating, comes complete with backlashes . . . and is wildly exciting if you slow down enough to see the broad spans of time across which change occurs. A lot of people then were waiting for the revolution; a lot of people now have lost faith that there will be one. The overthrow of the United States government seems extremely unlikely at the moment, but the transformation of everything within, around, and despite it has been underway for decades, including radical transformation in the governments of many other countries.

Sex before marriage. Bob and his boyfriend. Madame Speaker. Do those words make your hair stand on end or your eyes widen? Their flatness is the register of successful revolution. Many of the changes are so incremental that you adjust without realizing something has changed until suddenly one day you realize everything is different. I was reading something about food politics recently and thinking it was boring.

Then I realized that these were incredibly exciting ideas — about understanding where your food comes from and who grows it and what its impact on the planet and your body are. Fifteen or twenty years ago, hardly anyone thought about where coffee came from, or milk, or imagined fair-trade coffee. New terms like food miles, fairly new words like organic, sustainable, non-GMO, and reborn phenomena like farmers’ markets are all the result of what it’s fair to call the food revolution, and it has been so successful that ideas that were once startling and subversive have become familiar en route to becoming status quo. So my boredom was one register of victory.

Although we typically associate revolution with the sudden overthrow of a regime, the Industrial Revolution was an incremental change in everyday life and production that began a little over two centuries ago and never ended. It’s a useful reminder of what else revolution is. Late in 2006, I had the pleasure and honor of meeting Grace Lee Boggs in Detroit, where she’s lived and organized radical politics since the 1950s. Grace, who was born to Chinese immigrant parents in 1915, earned a PhD in philosophy in 1935, and married the African-American labor organizer Jimmy Boggs in the early 1950s, has lived long enough to see the whole idea of revolution change. She said to me, “In the first half of this century people never thought revolution involved transforming ourselves, that it required a two-sided transformation. They thought that all we had to do was transform the system, that all the problems were on the other side. It took the splitting of the atom and the Montgomery bus boycott to introduce us to a whole new way of thinking about revolution as tied to evolution.” In another interview, she expanded on this rejection of the idea that everything would change suddenly: “In revolutionary struggles throughout the twentieth century, we’ve seen that state power, viewed as a way to empower workers, ends up disempowering them. So we have to begin thinking differently. The old concept used to be: first we make the political revolution and then the cultural revolution. Now we have to think about how the cultural revolution can empower people differently.”

The fantasy of a revolution is that it will make everything different — and regime-changing revolutions generally make a difference, sometimes a significantly positive one — but the making of differences in everyday practices is a more protracted and incremental and ultimately more revolutionary process. Last month, I was asked in public about where the antiglobalization movement now stood. I gulped a little. I’m a slow thinker — I like to have a month to a year to mull something over, which is why I’m a writer. My first thought was that there wasn’t anything so dramatic and dynamic and visible as those ten thousand blockaders in the streets of Seattle on November 30 and December 1, 1999. Fortunately, I made the other person go first, and by the time her answer was complete, mine had grown to encompass how the very ideas around corporate globalization had spread, so that what was wild new thinking by radicals or revolutionaries in the streets in 1999 had become a reasonable position for many governments to take by 2003 or so — and even some of the Democratic presidential candidates by 2008.

In recent years, most Latin American nations have turned against the ideology of unfettered markets and trade pacts, and even in countries whose governments have not, most of the citizens have. Immanuel Wallerstein, the left-wing sociologist with a talent for prophecy, wrote an essay earlier this year headed “2008: The Demise of Neoliberal Globalization.” In it he said, “The political balance is swinging back. Neoliberal globalization will be written about ten years from now as a cyclical swing in the history of the capitalist world-economy. The real question is not whether this phase is over but whether the swing back will be able, as in the past, to restore a state of relative equilibrium in the world-system. Or has too much damage been done?” Such critiques of globalization have ceased to be inflammatory or extraordinary as the global public has grown increasingly educated in economics and the sinister underside of all those free-trade treaties. Those of us who fought against them won some practical victories and a lot more in the realm of public imagination, but the position ceased to belong exclusively to us as it became a reasonable position for many to take. This is why we need training in slowness, and the long attention span that makes it possible to see the remarkable changes of our time.

There’s also the widespread greening of the public imagination, with climate change having finally arrived on center stage. Cities and states across the country are now pushing to regulate emissions (and having to fight the Bush administration’s EPA in order to do so). My own state is even looking at regulating commercial airplane emissions. The revolution is here, but it doesn’t look like what people expected, and it isn’t even visible to those who aren’t practiced in the long view.

If the term revolution can be used to describe the Industrial Revolution, then perhaps we are launched upon something as profound — a backlash against the industrial revolution that brought us the acceleration of everyday life, the industrialization of time and space, the shrinkage of the contemplative time and space in which to understand ourselves and our lives. That is to say, the revolution is in part against the very speedup that has made us all busy, distracted, anxious, and unable even to perceive the tenor of our own times. So it is a revolution in perception and daily practice, as well as against the concrete institutions that spell the misery of everyday life for too many and the destruction of the Earth for us all.

It may never be finished, but the time to join it is now.


  1. Rebecca states “The revolution is in part against the very speedup that has made us all busy, distracted, anxious, and unable even to perceive the tenor of our own times.”

    YES – we used to pass the time, now in 2008 we spend the time.

    I agree – radical transformation is all around.

  2. Change minds to make the old way obsolete. By teaching through action one can puncture the minds of the old ways- showing a new path.

    What do I do?
    “…you can’t even trust the air you breathe cause Mother Earth wants us all to leave.”
    I ride my bike through Fond du Lac, WI with a respitory mask (one of the small hospital covers). People become curious.
    Some sort of change to their minds hopefully…

  3. David Serota spoke last night in San Francisco regarding his book,
    The Uprising. In his comments, he made the points that California has the eighth largest economy in the world, and change – particularly food politics, climate policies and transportation impact awareness – such as food miles can happen here.
    The responsibility is local, and more so in California, since Reagan and Nixon were from here.

    Start here, start now, and start small – farmers’ markets and victory gardens. Restaurants and businesses that reflect and embrace your ideals… patience, love and understanding.

    Bear witness, demand accountability, and be honest. That’s a good place to enter, dwell and a proud place to sustain.

  4. I liked most of Solnit’s article, but I disagree with the conclusions. Kurzweil’s writings have convinced me that change will come faster and faster, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing; it can be good if we get more thoughtful and loving people involved in the steering process (an issue that Kurzweil says too little about). Rapid change is not, in and of itself, the enemy.

    Until recent decades, humans were few in number, and our products were biodegradable, so we were not capable of harming the ecosystem. That changed, and a while afterwards we realized it had changed, and so now the “revolutionary” new concept of sustainability has begun to enter our everyday thinking.

    People learn a basic truth only rarely. But they unlearn a basic truth even more rarely, so I think there is gradual progress toward enlightenment. To me, the most conspicuous example is the struggle against racism: we’re still not done, but we’re clearly a lot further along now than 200 years ago. The progress is not steady — we get 2 steps forward and one step back — but in the overall trend, I think there is no going back. Of course, we cannot take the trend for granted — we only are making progress because we continue to push — but seeing what progress we have made immunizes me from despair.

  5. I put the word “revolutionary” in quotes. I do not actually advocate revolution. As I understand it, “reform” means “repair the current system,” while “revolution” means “tear down the current system and start over.” The difference is not just a matter of speed. I am in favor of rapid, massive reform, but not revolution. Revolution is less efficient, and seldom successful. Take a look at Russia in 1917 or Cuba in 1956 — two well-intentioned revolutions that got taken over by dictatorships. The essential ingredient for success in revolution or reform is widespread *understanding* of what is going on and of how the social system works and how it is rooted in a culture that needs changing, but revolutionaries are more apt to get caught up in punishing oppressors than in changing the culture. The result is that you just replace one oligarchy with another.

    The time has come to change not just government, but all of culture and human nature itself. Any change less than that will be superficial and temporary. Lakoff says that the battle between progressives and conservatives is between empathy and authoritarianism. Lerner says that issues, programs, economic policies are not enough; we must look at the arrangement of *meaning* in our lives. I’ve just begun reading Lerner and I’m having difficulty understanding him, but I think he’s probably right.

  6. Make your stand right where you are, there’s no where else to go, or time to get there. Repentence = a revolution in thinking.

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